Tough Choices on Wildlife

The desire to preserve the diversity of wildlife is noble. But that does not take away the fact that those who would preserve and protect threatened species are often faced with difficult and unpleasant choices.

The latest example is the poisoning of several thousand greater black-backed and herring gulls on South Monomoy Island, just off the Cape Cod village of Chatham. The gulls are part of a huge colony that established itself in the past few decades in the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, managed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Gulls spread down the US East Coast after World War II, feasting on huge landfills and fishing-boat waste. Large and aggressive birds, black-backed and herring gulls also prey on the eggs and young of smaller shore birds: On Monomoy they have decimated flourishing colonies of terns and piping plovers.

The roseate tern and the piping plover are both protected under the Endangered Species Act, and extraordinary measures have been taken all along the New England seacoast to restore them. Locals and tourists alike still grouse about the closing of some beaches when the plover chicks hatch in June and start roaming the sand in search of food.

In the last few years, these efforts have begun to pay off. The number of plover pairs in Massachusetts grew from 190 in 1991 to almost 450 last year. Fish and Wildlife biologists, supported by some environmentalists, argue that reducing the gulls' population is necessary to create and restore plover and tern habitat.

So in mid-May they began placing poisoned sandwiches in gull nests. About 2,000 gulls have died; some making their way first onto the Cape at the beginning of the tourist season. Local papers featured Page 1 pictures of afflicted gulls along with outraged comment from environmental activists, townspeople, and tourists.

Those environmentalists who oppose the extermination campaign argue that it's not right to kill one species in order to save another. Others, such as the Massachusetts Audubon Society, say the gull population is slowly decreasing as landfills close and the federal government should just let nature take its course. Some protest the nature of the killing, arguing that at the very least the Fish and Wildlife Service could use a more humane method. Meanwhile, protesters have demonstrated, and Fish and Wildlife employees have received death threats and have had to work under federal protection.

So, is a clumsy federal bureaucracy once again botching resource management, or are dedicated conservation officers doing their best to save endangered species and manage a precious national resource?

Government officials, environmentalists, and the public would do well to ponder Monomoy's lessons. In aiding the recovery of other endangered species, such difficult choices may become more, not less, common. But solutions in previous cases have shown that saving one species doesn't have to mean killing another.

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